Corrag by Susan Fletcher
I was always for places. I was made for the places where people did not go – like forests, or the soft marshy ground where feet sank down and to walk there made a suck suck sound. Me as a child was often in bogs. I watched frogs, or listened to how rushes were in breezes and I like that – how they sounded. Which is how I knew what I was.
So speaks Corrag; a young woman in prison accused of witchcraft and aiding members of the MacDonald clan to escape the massacre at Glencoe in 1692. In shackles and awaiting her death at the stake, she tells her story to a visitor to her cell. How she grew up in Northumberland and had to flee into Scotland when her mother was accused of being a witch …
She shook her head. ‘You are going alone. You are leaving me now, and you must not come back. Be careful. Be brave. Never be sorry for what you are, Corrag – but do not love people. Love is too sore and makes life hard to bear …’
I nodded. I heard her, and knew.
She fastened her cloak on me. She smoothed my hair, put up the cloak’s hood.
‘Be good to every living thing,’ she whispered.
‘Listen to the voice in you.
I will never be far away from you. And I will see you again – one day.’
Corrag is Susan Fletcher’s third novel, which ultimately tells the story of the mass murder of the Jacobite MacDonald clan by soldiers under orders from King William. Corrag herself was probably real, but her visitor, Charles Leslie certainly was. He was a Stuart supporter and came from Ireland to investigate the massacre. He urges Corrag to tell what happened, but first she wants to tell him how a Sassenach girl came to live in the Highlands. Every night after listening to Corrag, he writes home to his wife, telling her all about the witch, her odd lonesome ways, her expertise with herbs, her love of the winter. He starts to become entranced by the storytelling of this illiterate little woman.
Having flown England, and survived encounters with reivers and soldiers in the border country, she discovers the glens of the Highlands, and in Glencoe Corrag finds ‘home’. She forages and filches the odd egg from the hamlets before she meets the scions of the MacIain, chief of the MacDonald clan, who give her permission to live there. Then one day she’s taken to treat the wounded MacIain and she becomes almost an honorary member of the clan. She’s attracted to the younger son Alasdair, but he’s taken – however they do have an empathy for each other, and Corrag the loner feels love. We finally get to the awful night of the 13th February 1693, and Corrag has her part to play in saving the lives of many of the MacDonalds. Leslie gets not only what he came for, but realises that he is a changed man through listening to Corrag.
Susan Fletcher manages to convey the hard life of an outsider convincingly. Corrag is wise beyond her years, and totally in tune with nature – qualities which had she not found a haven with the MacDonalds would have seen her branded a witch instantly. The descriptions of the landscape are beautiful as Corrag gets to know every nook and cranny. The lyrical prose does make for a slow burning novel though, which takes its time to get to the main event. While I did enjoy the story, I was longing for a little bit more plot and history, some background to the clan wars, the Jacobite cause, and the other characters – not least her inquisitor turned entralled audience. It was not quite what I expected; it was slightly long and dragged a little in places, but the author’s turn of phrase was a pleasure to read. (Book supplied by the publisher, 7/10)